Duncan Hallas

The Comintern

7. The Terror and the People’s Front

‘In 1937, new facts came to light regarding the fiendish crimes of the Bukharin-Trotsky gang ... The trials showed that these dregs of humanity, in conjunction with the enemies of the people, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, had been in conspiracy against Lenin, the Party and the Soviet state ever since the early days of the October Revolution ... The trials brought to light the fact that the Trotsky-Bukharin fiends, in obedience to the wishes of their masters – the espionage services of foreign states – had set out to destroy the party and the Soviet state, to undermine the defensive power of the country, to assist foreign military interventions, to prepare the way for the defeat of the Red Army, to bring about the dismemberment of the USSR ... and to restore capitalist slavery hi the USSR.’
The history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1938.

IN JANUARY 1934, the seventeenth congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was held. According to the official history, ‘The seventeenth Party Congress is known in history as the “Congress of Victors”.’ It celebrated ‘the victory of socialism in all branches of the national economy [which] had abolished the exploitation of man by man.’ [1] Such fantasies aside, the Stalinist bureaucracy did have something to celebrate. The kulaks had been ‘liquidated as a class’, the mass of the peasantry was now firmly penned into the collective farms and, above all, industrial output had risen massively – the official claim was a 70 per cent increase, on average, since 1928. The bureaucracy was now firmly entrenched in power and privilege.

But behind the unanimity – there was no debate; all resolutions were carried unanimously – and the paeans of praise for the ‘great leader and teacher’, Stalin, there were tensions. The mass of workers and collectivised farmers were inert, numbed, but labour productivity was very low by the standards of the West. Sections of the bureaucracy began to doubt whether this extremely dangerous state of affairs could be remedied simply by continued police terror. Some favoured a greater reliance on incentives and a certain relaxation of coercion. Rightly or wrongly, views of this sort were attributed to S.M. Kirov, member of the Politbureau and boss of the Leningrad region.

On 1 December 1934 Kirov was murdered. His death was the signal for unleashing a new wave of state terrorism which was to last for five years. Unlike its predecessor of 1929 onwards, this terror was not primarily directed at workers and peasants, although they inevitably made up a large proportion of its victims. It was directed by Stalin at the bureaucracy itself, with the object of reducing all ranks of the hierarchy to total, unquestioning obedience to his will.

Stalin held no government position in 1934. His authority, so far as it rested on any ‘legal’ basis, derived entirely from his position as general secretary of the Russian Communist Party. In theory, however, this post was subject to election. Any session of the – now large – central committee could depose him. More immediately, the ruling Politbureau, which was theoretically a subcommittee of the central committee, could suspend him and recommend his replacement. It was therefore vital for Stalin that he establish an unassailable ascendancy over his immediate associates in the Politbureau. Hence the vast ‘conspiracies’ unearthed by his successive police chiefs, Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria. (The first two were themselves executed as traitors during Stalin’s reign, the third was shot immediately on Stalin’s death on the orders of his successors.)

At a deeper level the great purges, and the show trials which were their spectacular accompaniment, marked the decisive repudiation of the October Revolution through the physical destruction of those who had been involved in it. All the ‘old Bolsheviks’ were eliminated. Significantly the Soviets, long dead in practice, were in 1936 replaced by conventional electoral districts. A new ruling class was consolidating itself – and that involved the destruction of all those who had even the most tenuous connection with the revolutionary past.

The fate of the ‘victors’ of 1917 was revealed by one of those who survived, Stalin’s successor Khrushchev, in 1956:

‘Of the 139 members and candidates of the party’s Central Committee who were elected at the Seventeenth Congress, 98 persons, i.e. 70 per cent, were arrested and shot ... Of 1,966 delegates with either voting or advisory rights, 1,108 persons were arrested on charges of anti-revolutionary crimes ...’ [2]

Aside from a handful of token survivors of the revolutionary years, these people were Stalinists: in addition to Kirov, probably murdered on Stalin’s orders, at least six other members of Stalin’s hand-picked Politbureau were shot before 1940. But politically, the imaginary crimes of which these men were convicted were attributed to the influence and orders of the former leaders of opposition to Stalin, above all to the arch-fiend Trotsky. In the three great show trials of August 1936, January 1937, and March 1938 surviving leaders of the revolution, including Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin, were induced to confess that on Trotsky’s orders they had organised conspiracies to ‘restore capitalism’ in the USSR.

For Stalin to consolidate his power internationally, it was essential that the Comintern parties be immunised against criticism from the revolutionary left. For the Comintern was now to be swung, by Stalin’s agents, to a position well to the right of the social democratic parties, to a position of class collaboration – precisely the position taken by the social democrats during and after the First World War and against which the founders of the Comintern had revolted. The ‘People’s Front’, systematic class collaboration with the ‘liberal’ bourgeoisie, was now the order of the day – again, in the interests of Stalin’s foreign policy. The international campaign against ‘Trotskyism’, which came to include not only the genuine article but also any left-wing tendency which looked, however hesitantly, towards the traditions of the first five years of the Comintern, was intensified, especially from 1935, precisely because in these years the now degenerated Comintern sought to pull the working-class movement far to the right. Those who resisted were denounced as ‘Trotsky-fascists’, and Trotsky himself was branded as Hitler’s agent.

The show trials, the anti-Trotsky campaigns, and the new line of the ‘People’s Front’ were inseparably connected. The numerous social-democrats, liberal intellectuals and assorted ‘progressives’ who supported the People’s Front also – with few exceptions – defended the Moscow Trials and the anti-Trotsky hysteria. That was logical enough. Not only did fear of Hitler drive them towards Stalin, but they were joining with Stalin in trampling down a revolutionary tradition, that of Marx and Lenin, which they hated and feared. It is no accident that in this period the Stalinised communist parties were able to attract, for the first time, masses of middle-class members and sympathisers.

On this basis some of the Comintern parties were able to register considerable growth and new parties were built. Thus in South America, where the Chilean Communist Party had been the only substantial party in the 1920s, and had then been decimated by repression, the Comintern was able to claim in 1935 affiliated parties in Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, as well as substantial growth in the previously tiny parties in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Mexico. All these parties grew on the basis of the new policy of class collaboration.

The People’s Front in France

‘Today the situation is not what it was hi 1914. Now it is not only the working class, the peasantry and all working people who are resolved to maintain peace, but also the oppressed countries and the weak nations whose independence is threatened by war. The Soviet Union, the invincible fortress of the world proletariat and the oppressed of all countries, is the focal point of all the forces fighting for peace. In the present phase a number of capitalist states are also concerned to maintain peace. Hence the possibility of creating a broad front of the working class, of all working people, and of entire nations against the danger of imperialist war.’
Resolution of the Comintern executive, April 1936.

HITLER IN POWER soon denounced the Treaty of Versailles, which restricted the German army to a maximum of 100,000 men, and launched a massive rearmament drive. Manifestly he was preparing for war, and the USSR was obviously one of his intended victims. Stalin now sought military alliances with the then still dominant powers of Europe: Britain and France.

The ‘People’s Front’ line was wholly and solely designed to bring pressure to bear on these governments, and any others

which might be induced to join a military coalition with the USSR against Hitler. The seventh and last world congress of the Comintern, in July-August 1935, was summoned to promote this end: ‘The struggle for peace opens up before the communist parties the greatest opportunities for creating the broadest united front,’ it declared.

‘All those interested in the preservation of peace should be drawn into this united front. The concentration of forces against the chief instigators of war at any given moment (at the present time – against fascist Germany and against Poland and Japan, which are in league with it) constitutes a most important tactical task ... the establishment of a unity front with social-democratic and reformist organisations ... with mass national liberation, religious-democratic and pacifist organisations and their adherents, is of decisive importance for the struggle against war and its fascist instigators in all countries.’ [3]

Of course this was not the united front tactic. It was not a question of class politics at all, but of mobilising support for the foreign policy pursued by Stalin, support from any class and in particular from the ruling classes of other countries. The Comintern had come full circle. From breaking with the social democrats because of their nationalist, class-collaborationist policies, the Comintern was now more openly concerned with class collaboration than most social democrats.

It was no longer even a question of subordinating the working class of a semi-colonial country to a supposedly ‘progressive national bourgeoisie’ in the alleged interests of the struggle against imperialism – which had been itself a policy directly contrary to the decisions of the Comintern’s second congress. It was now a matter of subordinating the working classes and the national movements to the rulers of the two greatest colonial empires on earth, Britain and France!

A most significant feature of the seventh congress of the Comintern was the careful avoidance of anti-imperialist speeches, which had still featured prominently at the sixth. No delegate from India spoke, the first time this had happened since 1919, nor from Indonesia. The speech of a delegate from Egypt (then British-controlled), who had obviously been called in error, was omitted from the official record. Delegates from the French colonies of Syria and Vietnam did speak, but managed to avoid all reference to French imperialism!

With the adoption of the ‘People’s Front’ line, the Comintern got a new manager. George Dimitrov, the Bulgarian exile who had worked in Germany throughout the ‘Third Period’ and gained prestige by his defence at the trial of those accused of the Reichstag Fire, now took over. He was a vigorous and effective advocate of the new turn, not a mere hack.

In May 1935 the USSR signed a ‘mutual security pact’ with France. The PCF, which had only recently been shouting the ferocious rhetoric of the Third Period and calling the French government fascist, now swung right round. Thorez, its leader, proclaimed:

‘The peace policy of the Soviet Government is in conformity with the historic instructions of Lenin; it is firmly conducted by Stalin; it corresponds to the interests of the international proletariat ... there is, for the moment, a correspondence of interest between bourgeois France and the Soviet Union against Hitler.’ [4]

But Stalin (rightly) distrusted the French conservative government, which was then headed by Pierre Laval, a future collaborator with Hitler. The PCF pressed for a ‘People’s Front’ to contest the next elections, which came in the spring of 1936. Its call fell on fertile soil.

A revulsion against Third Period cretinism had arisen independently of Moscow. The effect of Hitler’s victory inside Germany was to create a groundswell for working-class unity amongst politically-conscious workers. Those communist parties which still had some serious working-class support inevitably felt this groundswell. Some communist party leaders were, even before their line changed, casting around for ways to reduce the isolation of their parties without actually falling foul of the Comintern centre. And the socialist parties too were becoming open to the appeal for unity.

In France the shift began in 1934. On 6 February, the fascist organisations staged a riot and attack on the Chamber of Deputies (parliament) in an attempt to force the government to resign. After the fighting with the police there were 13 dead and more than 300 seriously injured. The reformist CGT called for a mass strike and demonstration on the 12th. The CGTU called for a mass strike and demonstration on the 12th. The CGTU, after a sharp conflict at the top, endorsed the call. The strike was well supported in Paris, and the two organisations’ separate demonstrations finally merged.

Pressure for a united front grew. Hesitantly, the PCF leadership began to shift. Thorez was in Moscow in May and seems to have got permission for some sort of approach to the SFIO for united action against the fascists. The SFIO leaders were also under pressure from their own ranks. That same February 1934 the Austrian clerical reactionaries used the army to smash the Socialist Party and the unions and established a military police dictatorship. The SFIO were seriously alarmed and so, after various manoeuvrinds, a pact was signed at Ivry between the two parties for united action against the fascists.

In October negotiations began for fusion between the CGT and the CGTU. The CGTU had lost its majority position, in terms of workers organised, through its Third Period antics. Final agreement to fuse was not reached until 1936 but the fact that unity was in the air helped both federations to grow.

Such developments were so far confined to workers’ organisations. Soon, however, the Radicals, the main bourgeois centre party, were drawn in, together with some smaller groupings. The Popular Front was born as an electoral alliance, on a vaguely ‘progressive’ but definitely non-socialist platform which stressed ‘collective security’, in other words, military strength. It won the elections of April/May 1936 easily. On the second ballot the SFIO got 182 deputies, the Radicals 116, and the PCF, campaigning on the slogan ‘for a strong, free and happy France’ got 72.

‘We boldly deprived our enemies of the things they had stolen from us and trampled underfoot. We took back the Tricolor and the Marseillaise’, said Thorez.

Both the workers’ parties increased their vote over that in 1932; the SFIO from 1,950,000 to 2,206,000; the PCF from 800,000 to 1,468,000. The Radicals, as well as the right, lost ground. Leon Blum, the SFIO leader, formed the Popular Front government with the enthusiastic support of the PCF. But the PCF had no ministers. Thorez had wanted to bargain for representation, but, in their different ways, both Stalin and Blum thought it inadvisable to alarm the bourgeoisie with supposedly ‘red’ ministers. The PCF accepted without dispute.

Shortly after the election events took a turn none of the leaders expected. The slump had come late to France, but it had struck hard, and was used by the employers as an opportunity to cut wages. Now, with the electoral defeat of the right and a certain economic revival, there was a great explosion of strikes and sit-ins. More than six million workers were involved in June. Total union membership, a little over a million in the spring (CGT, 800,000; CGTU, 300,000) shot up to over five million in the summer. The strike wave was not simply economic. All manner of demands for job control, for nationalisation, for fundamental change were put forward. It was a real ‘festival of the oppressed’. Unorganised workers with no previous experience of struggle – including insurance workers and bank clerks – occupied their workplaces. In some cases the occupations started before any actual demands had been formulated!

Trotsky, from his exile in Norway, wrote: ‘The French Revolution has begun’. The left-wing SFIO leader, Pivert, proclaimed: ‘Everything is possible.’ Now was the time for a revolutionary socialist party to generalise the workers’ struggles into a fight for workers’ power. But the PCF was no longer a revolutionary party.

The bourgeoisie, terrified, appealed to Blum. Blum appealed to Thorez. Everyone understood that to control the upsurge by mere promises was impossible. Real concessions had to be made. So the bosses, most of whom a few weeks earlier would not have even considered recognising a union, now hurried to agree with the union chiefs a ‘new deal’, including union recognition, sweeping wage rises, and the 40-hour week – a sensational gain at the time. But would these large-scale concessions be sufficient to damp down the workers’ militancy? So wide and deep was the ferment that the SFIO and CGT leaders could not control it alone. In selling this ‘Matignon Agreement’ to the workers the PCF played the decisive role.

The PCF, which only a year earlier had been talking of ‘ascending revolutionary struggles’ whenever there was a local strike, and calling (most inappropriately) for ‘soviets everywhere’, was regarded by the newly-awakened workers as the real ‘red’ party. Its membership shot up to more than 100,000.

But its new authority was used not to develop, but to end the movement. ‘It is necessary to know when to end a strike,’ declared Thorez. ‘Everything is not possible,’ declared the party’s daily paper. It was ‘Trotskyism’ to persist, and ‘Trotskyism’, as had been proved in Moscow, was an agency of the fascists. Some of the strikes and occupations spluttered on for a while, but the PCF was able to kill the movement.

It is worth stressing the distance between the policies adopted by the PCF in its Popular Front period and the tactic of the united front as it had been understood in the early years of the Comintern. Whereas the second congress had spelt out the importance of communists maintaining their political independence, the PCF suspended all criticism of its socialist allies. Whereas ‘unity’ had been understood as practical agreements for particular action designed to test the reformist leaders in the eyes of their supporters, it now came to mean an electoral bloc which tested no-one. And whereas co-operation between revolutionaries and others had once centred around workers and their organisations, on the basis that revolutionaries had to achieve a majority in the working class, the PCF now extended its passive, uncritical unity to the organisations of the bourgeoisie. In the name of anti-fascism the interests of workers were subordinated to those of the French ruling class.

The Popular Front not only squandered an opportunity to establish workers’ power: as the bourgeoisie began to recover its confidence, the government shifted rightwards. So did the PCF. By the end of the year it was calling for the transformation of the ‘People’s Front’ into a French Front, by the inclusion of those right-wing conservatives who were strongly anti-German on nationalist grounds.

Blum started, cautiously at first, to erode the gains made by workers in the Matignon Agreement. Demoralisation began to set in in the working class.

Blum was then replaced as premier by the Radical Party leader, Chautemps. The PCF supported Chautemps, who in turn supported the bosses – much more openly than had Blum. And when Chautemps was himself replaced by the more conservative Daladier, the PCF continued in its support. This was finally withdrawn in September 1938, not because of any change in internal policy, but because in that month at Munich, the British and French governments agreed to sacrifice their ally, Czechoslovakia, to Hitler in the hope of buying him off. ‘Collective Security’, the supposed foreign policy of the Popular Front and the very reason for its existence in the eyes of Stalin and the PCF, was unceremoniously junked. The USSR was isolated. Then, and only then, did the PCF deputies vote against the government, still nominally the Popular Front government, in a vote of confidence.

By this time the working-class movement was in full retreat. Demoralisation was widespread. Union membership was falling substantially. Hitler was going from strength to strength. The smell of defeat was everywhere. In late September 1939, that same Chamber of Deputies, with its Popular Front majority, outlawed the PCF! Then, in June 1940, the same bloc voted to install the quasi-fascist regime of Petain and Laval. Thus ended the Popular Front in France.

On one issue, and one only, had the PCF been critical of the Popular Front governments from the outset: on the issue of selling arms to the Spanish Republic. Because the French and British ruling classes supported Franco, Blum and the rest always refused to sell arms to be used against him. The PCF, and Stalin, wanted the Spanish Republic to survive – but as a bourgeois republic under a Popular Front government. In Spain as in France, the Popular Front policy led to a crushing defeat for the working class.

The Spanish Revolution

‘The Spanish proletariat displayed first rate military qualities. In its specific gravity in the country’s economic life, in its political and cultural level, the Spanish proletariat stood, on the first day of the revolution, not below but above the Russian proletariat at the beginning of 1917. On the road to its victory its own organisations stood as the chief obstacles ... The “republican” military commanders were more concerned with crushing the social revolution than with scoring military victories. The soldiers lost confidence in their commanders, the masses in the government; the peasants stepped aside; the workers became exhausted; defeat followed defeat; demoralisation grew apace ... By setting itself the task of rescuing the capitalist regime, the Popular Front doomed itself to military defeat ... Stalin succeeded completely in fulfilling the role of grave digger of the revolution.’
Trotsky, The lessons of Spain: The last warning, 1937.

THE SPANISH People’s Front included four bourgeois parties – the Republican Union, the Republican Left, the Catalan Nationalists and the Basque Nationalists – plus the Spanish Socialist party (PSE), the Communist Party (PCE) and the POUM, a party which claimed to be revolutionary but which was in fact centrist. It owed its electoral victory in February 1936 to the tacit support of the anarchists, who controlled Spain’s biggest trade union federation, the CNT. The new government was headed by Manuel Azana, a moderate conservative, former war minister and former prime minister, whom the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) had been denouncing as a fascist until 1935. It was at first composed entirely of ministers from the bourgeois parties. ‘Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the [Popular Front] programme was the absence of any serious social and economic demands,’ noted a shrewd bourgeois historian, E.H. Carr.

‘Agitation for the taking over of the land by peasants and of the factories by workers was actively pursued by the left ... But this was not reflected or encouraged in the programme of the popular front. In terms of the heated controversies of the day, it was a mild and anodyne document, evidently designed to rally a wide coalition of divergent interests and sectors of opinion, united only in their commitment to the republic and to some form of democratic government.’ [6]

However, various things do have to be taken into account: the Spanish monarchy had been overthrown only in 1931, and the conservative right was by no means reconciled to its passing; one concrete measure which the Azaña government promised and actually fulfilled on their accession to power was an amnesty for political prisoners, some 30,000 of them, overwhelmingly left-wingers and the majority anarchists; and ‘democracy’ meant very different things to the Spanish bourgeoisie – most of whom were strongly opposed to the amnesty – and to the class-conscious sections of the working class and the peasantry.

The popular front government was very moderate, but nevertheless its accession sparked off a wave of strikes, land seizures by peasants and popular violence against hated representatives of the far right. Azaña had taken over from an ultra-right wing government whose repression had radicalised both workers and peasants. The size of the strike wave gives some idea of the upsurge: a million workers were on strike on 10 June, falling to half a million ten days later, but rising to a million again early in July.

‘Law and Order’ was breaking down. The situation was becoming revolutionary in spite of efforts to calm things down by ministers, the Socialist Party, and still more the Communist Party.

On 17 July a military coup was launched, supported by the fascists, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and practically the whole of the upper classes, who had lost confidence in the ability of Azaña to control the situation. Azaña himself, who had been president since May, knew of the coup in advance, as did at least some of his ministers. They kept quiet about it.

When the army garrisons and civil guard units tried to take over the major cities there was the most spectacular spontaneous working-class rising ever seen. Starting in Barcelona on 19 July, it led to the defeat of the garrisons over a large part of Spain. The top leaders of the workers’ parties played little part in it: the action was led mainly by local anarchist and socialist militants. Now the party leaderships moved to reassert control – and the Spanish Communist Party was on the extreme right wing of this movement.

‘It is absolutely false,’ declared Jesus Hernandez, editor of the Communist Party’s daily paper, ‘that the present workers’ movement has for its object the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship after the war has terminated. It cannot be said that we have a social motive for our participation in the war. We communists are the first to repudiate this suggestion. We are moved exclusively by a desire to defend the democratic republic.’ [7]

That republic had ceased to exist. The government had practically no military or police forces at its disposal. The soldiers were either with General Franco and the fascists or had gone over to the workers’ militias, which were now the only armed force outside the still limited territory held by Franco. The government lacked even an effective administrative apparatus; workers’ committees had taken over here too.

‘As soon as you cross the frontier, you are halted by armed men. Who are these men? Workers. They are militiamen – that is, workers with their normal clothes – but armed with rifles or revolvers and with signs on their arms indicating their functions or the power they represent ... They are the ones who ... will decide ... not to let you in or to refer it to the “committee”.

‘The committee is the group of men who are in charge over in the next village and who exercise complete power there. It is the committee who see to the normal municipal functions, who formed the local militia, armed it, and supplied it with food and lodging from the funds raised by a levy imposed on all the local inhabitants. They are the ones who give you permission to enter or leave the town, who closed down the local fascist shops and who carried out essential requisitions.’ [8]

In short, the situation was similar to that in Russia in March 1917 or Germany in November 1918.

Those who described themselves as ‘we communists’ now set out to recreate the bourgeois republic, just as the SPD leaders had done in Germany in 1918. They did so with the aid of the Socialist Party and its bourgeois allies. Not that the latter represented much. The Communist Party made a coalition ‘with the shadow of a bourgeoisie’, as Trotsky said, for the real bourgeoisie was now with Franco.

Franco’s military threat was serious, of course, but the People’s Front actually helped him recover from the setback of the workers’ rising. In July and August 1936, Franco relied heavily on Moorish troops flown in from Spanish Morocco in German transport planes. His mobile field army was built, initially, around this Moorish core. Now there had been a massive rebellion in Morocco (in both French and Spanish colonies) in the 1920s led by Abd-el-Krim. This rebellion had taken years to suppress. An immediate declaration of Moorish independence by the Spanish republican government would have undermined what was temporarily Franco’s main resource and caused his Moorish troops to waver, at the very least. Abd-el-Krim himself, a prisoner of ‘comrade’ Blum’s French People’s Front, appealed to the Spanish Socialist Party leader Caballero to intercede with Blum to secure his release – so that he could return to Morocco to fight against Franco.

It was out of the question. Independence for Spanish Morocco would inevitably bring renewed rebellion in French Morocco. But the whole purpose of the People’s Front was to cement a deal between the French and British Empires and the USSR. So the Moorish troops, offered nothing, stayed with Franco.

The Moroccan question was not exceptional. On all other issues, even those of a directly military nature, winning the war was sacrificed to the vain hope of closer relations with the governments of Britain and France. So the navy, most of which had mutinied at the beginning of the war and gone over to the republic, was kept in harbour by the republican government for fear that its deployment might offend the rulers of France and Britain – for these countries had joined with Germany and Italy in mounting naval patrols to enforce ‘non-intervention’ in Spain, a non-intervention directed entirely against the republic.

As with the PCF in France, the Spanish Communist Party fought for the counter-revolution in its bourgeois-democratic form, in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘the struggle against Trotskyism and fascism’. As the Spanish party was initially very weak – it had about 1,000 members in 1934, rising to 35,000 in February 1936, and 117,000 in July 1937 – it depended heavily on Russian and Comintern support. The USSR maintained a carefully regulated supply of arms and ammunition to the republic and was virtually the only supplier, since the British government and the Popular Front government in France came to an agreement with the fascist powers, Germany and Italy, to prevent arms supplies. The Comintern’s contribution was the International Brigades; about 40,000 men in all, of whom 10,000 were French. [9] Again, this very significant military contribution was a powerful aid to the influence of the Spanish Communist Party. The heroism of the volunteers, Communist Party members and others, was tragically exploited in the interests of Russian foreign policy.

But the Spanish Communist Party did not depend solely on this. It also built itself a middle-class base:

‘The small manufacturers, artisans, tradesmen, peasant proprietors, and tenant farmers, in their immense majority, placed their hopes of a better life, not in the abolition, but in the accumulation of private property. To develop as they wished, they needed freedom of trade, freedom from the competition of the large concerns now collectivised by the labour unions, freedom to produce goods for personal profit, freedom to cultivate as much land as they pleased, and to employ hired labour without restriction. And above all, they needed, in order to defend that freedom, a regime in their own image, based on their own police corps, their own courts of law, and their own army; a regime in which their own power would be unchallenged and undiluted by revolutionary committees. But now all hope of such a regime had gone, and the middle classes had no alternative but to withdraw into the background. They were far too prudent to swim against the tide, and even adapted their attire to suit the changed conditions. “The appearance of Madrid,” observed a right-wing Republican, “was incredible: the bourgeoisie giving the clenched-fist salute ... Men in overalls and rope sandals, imitating the uniform adopted by the [working-class] militia; women bare-headed ...”

‘But floundering in the flood of the revolution, the liberal as well as the conservative members of the middle classes were impressed at the time only by the manifest impotence of their parties and soon began to cast about for an organisation that would serve as a breakwater to check the revolutionary tide set in motion by the Anarchist and Socialist labour unions.

‘They did not have to search for long. Before many weeks had passed the organisation that succeeded in focusing upon itself their immediate hopes was the Communist Party ...

‘The Communist Party was soon to mould decisively the course of events in the camp of the anti-Franco forces. Championing the interests of the urban and rural middle classes – a stand few Republicans dared to assume in that atmosphere of revolutionary emotionalism – the Communist Party became within a few months the refuge, according to its own figures, of 76,700 peasant proprietors and tenant fanners and of 15,485 members of the urban middle classes. That its influence among these layers went far beyond these aforementioned figures is indubitable, for thousands of members of the intermediate classes in both town and country, without actually becoming adherents of the party, placed themselves under its wing. From the very outset of the revolution, the Communist Party, like the PSUC, the Communist-controlled United Socialist Party of Catalonia, took up the cause of the middle classes who were being dragged into the vortex of the collectivisation movement or who were being crippled by the disruption of trade, the lack of financial resources, and by the requisitions carried out by the working-class militia.

‘“In a capitalist society, the small tradesmen and manufacturers,” declared Mundo Obrero, the Communist organ in Madrid, “constitute a class that has many things in common with the proletariat. It is of course on the side of the democratic Republic, and it is as much opposed to the big capitalists and captains of powerful fascist enterprises as the workers. This being so it is everybody’s duty to respect the property of these small tradesmen and manufacturers.

‘“We therefore strongly urge the members of our party and the militia in general to demand, and, if need be, to enforce respect for these middle-class citizens, all of whom are workers, and who therefore should not be molested. Their modest interests should not be injured by requisitions and demands that are beyond their meagre resources.”

‘“... It would be unpardonable,” said Treball, the Communist organ in Catalonia, “to forget the multitude of small commodity producers and businessmen of our region. Many of them, thinking only of creating what they had believed would be a position of independence for themselves, had succeeded in setting up their own businesses. Then came a change in the situation precipitated by the attempted coup d’etat of the fascists. The immense majority of small commodity producers and businessmen, who had lived completely on the margin of events, are now more confused than anyone, because they feel that they are being harmed and that they are at an obvious disadvantage in comparison with the wage earners. They declare that nobody is concerned about their fate. They are elements who might tend to favour any reactionary movement, because in their opinion anything would be better than the economic system that is being instituted in our region ...

‘“The distressing situation of many of these people is obvious. They cannot run their workshops and businesses because they have no reserve capital; they have hardly enough to eat, especially the small manufacturers, because the wages they have to pay to the few workers they employ prevent them from attending to their own daily needs ...

‘“A moratorium must be granted to all those people who have placed themselves at the service of the anti-fascist militia, so that they do not have to bear the full weight of the requisitions imposed by the war. A moratorium must be granted and a credit should be opened so that their businesses do not go into liquidation.”

‘As a means of protecting the interests of the urban middle classes in this region the Communists organised eighteen thousand tradesmen, handicraftsmen, and small manufacturers into the Federation Catalana de Gremios y Entidades de Pequeños Comerciantes e Industriales (known as the GEPCI), some of whose members were, in the phrase of Solidaridad Obrera, the CNT organ, “intransigent employers, ferociously anti-labour,” including Gurria, the former President of the Tailoring Trades Association.

‘Because the Communist Party gave the urban and rural middle classes a powerful access of life and vigour, it is not surprising that a large part of the copious flow of new members into the party in the months following the revolution came from these classes. It is almost superfluous to say of course that these new recruits were attracted, not by Communist principles, but by the hope of saving something from the ruins of the old social system, Furthermore, in addition to defending their property rights, the Communist Party defined the social overturn, not as a proletarian, but as a bourgeois democratic revolution. Within a few days of the outbreak of the war, Dolores Ibarruri, the woman Communist leader, known as La Pasionaria, declared in the name of the Central Committee:

‘“The revolution that is taking place in our country is the bourgeois democratic revolution which was achieved over a century ago in other countries, such as France, and we Communists are the front-line fighters hi this struggle against the obscurantist forces of the past.”‘ [10]

It took two years of complicated manoeuvres to end the dual power of 1936 and restore control over the working class to the bourgeois republic [11], two years in which Franco was able to conquer much of Spain using conventional warfare. Without the political line of the People’s Front to destroy the revolution, Franco’s prospects would not have been good. But the workers’ revolution was strangled by the People’s Front before Franco defeated the republic, with a victory in March 1939 which established a right-wing dictatorship that was to last nearly 30 years.

The Spanish Communist Party had used its influence both to support the bourgeois ministers against the socialists and to support the right-wing socialists against the left-wing majority of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSE), the anarcho-syndicalists and the POUM.

First the POUM was denounced as Trotskyist (which it was not) and then, in 1937, it was suppressed, along with the left wing of the anarcho-syndicalists. Many were murdered; the GPU operated freely under Spanish Popular Front protection. The left-wing socialists, including the prime minister, Caballero, were driven out of the government. Regular police forces were re-established and bourgeois property rights reasserted. In the army, the officer corps reclaimed its supremacy. The militias were absorbed or disbanded. The conquests of 1936 were progressively taken back. In the end, the reconstituted bourgeois state machine, in the person of General Casado, overthrew the government and surrendered to Franco in March 1939. Stalinism had destroyed the Spanish revolution.

The last spasm, 1939-43

‘The definite passing over of die Comintern to the side of die bourgeois. order, its cynically counter-revolutionary role throughout the world, particularly in Spain, France, the United States and other “democratic” countries, created exceptional supplementary difficulties for the world proletariat.’
Trotsky, The Transitional Programme, 1938.

IN AUGUST 1939, Stalin reversed his foreign policy. Despairing of an effective military alliance with Britain and France, he made a pact with Hitler on 23 August. Its basis was the partition of Poland between Germany and the USSR, the absorption of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by the USSR, and a pledge of Russian neutrality in the coming war. The war started one week later. The German army invaded Poland on 1 September. By 3 September Germany was at war with Britain and France. But Stalin stood by his pact with the Nazis. On 17 September the Russian army crossed the border into Poland to seize Stalin’s share of the booty.

The Comintern centre did not immediately react to the new situation. Presumably it had not been told what to say. At any rate the British and French communist parties did not immediately change course. Although greeting the Hitler-Stalin Pact as ‘a triumph of the great Socialist Republic’s peace policy’ [12], they supported their own governments on the outbreak of war. The French Communist Party deputies voted for the war with more enthusiasm than those of most other parties – while the British Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt rushed out a pamphlet entitled How to win the war.

But it soon appeared that this was not at all what was wanted. Moscow decreed that the ‘anti-fascist alliance’ was now out. Another somersault was imposed on the Comintern parties. Early in November 1939 the Comintern executive declared: ‘The ruling circles of England, France and Germany are waging war for world supremacy. This war is the continuation of many years of imperialist strife in the camp of capitalism. Three of the richest states – England, France and the USA – hold sway over the most important routes and markets. They have seized possession of the main sources of raw materials. In their hands are huge economic resources. They hold over one half of mankind in subjection. They cover up the exploitation of the working people, the exploitation of the oppressed peoples, with the false phantom of democracy, so all the more easily to deceive the masses.

‘Fighting against their world supremacy, and for their own mastery, are the other capitalist states, which came later into the arena of colonial expansion. They want to divide anew, to their own advantage, the sources of raw materials, food, gold reserves, and the huge masses of people in the colonies. Such is the real meaning of this war, which is an unjust, reactionary and imperialist war ... The working class cannot support such a war’ [against Germany]. [13]

The Comintern had, of course, been saying the opposite of this since 1935!

The sheer cynicism and effrontery of this abrupt reversal of position shook the British and French communist parties particularly. Twenty-one PCF deputies had already resigned from the party after the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Members and fellow-travellers now deserted both parties in droves, even before the outlawing of the PCF. In Britain, Pollitt had to resign his position as party leader and look for work in his trade.

But the core of the parties held firm. The myth of the ‘socialist fatherland’, the suspicion that the motives of the rulers of Britain and France were indeed exactly as the Comintern statement described them (which was, indeed, well-founded), the belief that Stalin was somehow outwitting Hitler, the complete Stalinisation of the party machines and the long-established habits of obedience; all served to ensure that the new turn was accepted.

It should not be thought that it represented a return to the revolutionary position of the Comintern’s early years. Far from it. The cry now was for peace, in other words for a negotiated peace with Hitler and the Nazis on the basis of the new status quo – which of course included the possession by the USSR of half of Poland and of the Baltic states. It coincided with the ‘peace efforts’ of Hitler’s foreign office in two periods especially: immediately after the conquest of Poland and again in the summer of 1940 after the defeat of France, when Hitler launched his own ‘peace offensives’.

Less than two years later, events forced on Stalin yet another reversal of foreign policy. Hitler’s forces invaded the USSR. The Comintern again obediently fell into line (without a word of explanation for the change), calling for ‘the mobilisation of every force of the nations embattled against Hitler in a life and death struggle’. [14] The war which on 21 June 1941 was an imperialist war in Britain and France became a war for democracy on the 22nd.

The Comintern now ceased to have any significance for Stalin. The thing had served its purpose. Churchill and Roosevelt, representing the ruling classes of the West, now Stalin’s allies, did not like anything which might remind their workers of the revolutionary years – even if only in name. In May 1943, the executive committee of the Comintern called for its dissolution. In June it announced that this had been ‘unanimously agreed’ by the sections. On 8 June 1943 the Comintern was formally liquidated.

Stalin commented, in an interview with the Moscow correspondent of the Reuters news agency, as follows:

Question: British comment on the decision to dissolve the Comintern has been very favourable. What is the Soviet view on this matter?

Answer: The dissolution of the Comintern is proper and timely because it facilitates the organisation of the common onslaught of all freedom-loving nations against the common enemy – Hitlerism ... It facilitates the work of patriots of all countries for uniting the progressive forces of their respective countries, regardless of party or religious faith, into a single camp of national liberation ...’ [15]

‘Patriots’, ‘freedom-loving nations’ – and Marx had written that all history is the history of class struggles! The Comintern’s formal liquidation had come long after its death as a revolutionary workers’ international.

The liquidation of its leading personnel had also come earlier. The Bolshevik Party, the driving force of the Comintern in its early years, had a central committee of 24 members in 1917. Of these, seven died before Stalin established his dictatorship and two, Stalin himself and Alexandra Kollontai, were still alive in 1943. All the other fifteen were murdered, with or without ‘trial’, by the Stalinist regime. They included all the Bolshevik representatives on the Comintern executive in the early years: Bukharin, Radek, Trotsky and Zinoviev – the only exception is Lenin.

The entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party, which had taken refuge in the USSR or had in some cases been summoned there, perished in the great purge of the 1930s. Warski, Walecki and Wera Kostryewa, from the party’s right wing, Domsky and Unslicht of the left, and even the Stalinist Lenski, who had been general secretary since 1929 – all were liquidated. The only prominent members of the party who survived were those, among whom Gomulka was notable, who had the good fortune to be serving long sentences in Polish prisons at the time. The Polish party itself was dissolved by Stalin’s agents in 1938.

The German communists fared little better. Wilhelm Pieck, a founding member of the KPD, was preserved as a figurehead. Otherwise those prominent KPD leaders who had taken refuge in the USSR were murdered. They included Hugo Eberlein, the only German delegate at the Comintern’s 1919 congress and a long-serving member of the Comintern executive. Of the three who led the KPD in the notorious ‘Third Period’, Neumann and Remmele were murdered in the USSR; Thälmann died in a Nazi concentration camp.

Most of the leaders of the East European parties who were in the USSR were also arrested and shot or sent to die in concentration camps by Stalin. Tito, later to be ruler of Yugoslavia, testified long afterwards:

‘In 1938 when I was in Moscow ... we were discussing whether to dissolve the Yugoslav Communist Party or not. All the Yugoslav leaders at that time in the Soviet Union had been arrested. I was alone ...’ [16]

Similarly most of the Hungarians, including Bela Kun, the Finns, including Manner, head of the short-lived Finnish Socialist Republic of 1918 and then a member of the Comintern executive, the Latvians, including Berzin, who had been at Zimmerwald and signed the declaration of the Zimmerwald Left, also disappeared. Of the major illegal parties, only the Italians, most of whose leaders were in exile in France after Mussolini’s takeover, and the Chinese, who now controlled a territory of their own in part of China, escaped. For all the others, taking refuge in the ‘socialist fatherland’ from repressive regimes in their own countries meant death.

Stalin sought to destroy the revolutionary Marxist tradition both physically and politically, as the leading representative of the new ruling class in Russia.




1. History of the CPSU (B) (Moscow 1939) p.319.

2. Khrushchev, The Secret Speech (Nottingham 1976) p.33.

3. Degras, vol.3, p.375.

4. Kemp, Stalinism in France, vol.1 (London 1983) p.118.

5. Degras, vol.3, p.384. [The anchor for this note is missing]

6. Carr, The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War (London 1984) p.3.

7. Morrow, Revolution and Counter-revolution in Spain (London 1963) p.34.

8. Broué and Témime, The Revolution and Civil War in Spain (London 1972) p.127.

9. Thomas, The Civil War in Spain (London 1965) p.796.

10. Bolloten, The Grand Camouflage (London 1961) pp.81-6.

11. This is described in detail in Felix Morrow’s book.

12. Degras, vol.3, p.439.

13. Degras, vol.3, pp.443-4. Emphasis added.

14. Degras, vol.3, p.472.

15. Claudin, The Communist Movement (London 1975) p.45.

16. Dedijer, Tito Speaks (London 1953) p.391.


Last updated on 5.11.2004